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Higher Still must keep up with times;Opinion

The current approach to technology needs to be reviewed before the millennium, argues Angus Gray

RUMOUR HAS it that some English teachers don't do what they are supposed to. However, it should be pointed out that they are supposed to do something which is not sensible. And now Higher Still is continuing this policy - but on a larger scale.

At the moment there is a requirement that final drafts of Higher coursework writing assignments are completed under supervision before being submitted to the Scottish Qualifications Authority. The thinking is that this will help ensure that candidates don't cheat, and so parents, colleges, universities and employers can be assured that the final assessment will be a genuine reflection of ability.

But there is a flaw. The candidate is allowed to take in to the classroom previous drafts of the work in question - and this means that the final draft may simply be a copying exercise. As to what the candidate is copying, there is no guarantee that mum, dad, uncles and aunts, friends and the Internet haven't all been involved beforehand.

All is not lost, however, since the teacher must be vigilant and must sign to indicate that the final draft is a fair reflection of the candidate's true ability. The ultimate control in this situation, then, is not the injunction to supervise the writing of the final draft in school, but the teacher's judgment as to whether the candidate has cheated or not.

Since teachers recognise this, and since time on the Higher course is limited, it is rumoured that some English teachers do not require the final draft to be written in class, but allow it to be done at home, thus saving time, which can be used for active teaching, rather than watching pupils work away on their own. Small wonder, perhaps, that some teachers do break the rules - allegedly.

Now, under Higher Still regulations, despite various assurances that the matter would be resolved in a satisfactory manner, we are instructed that coursework essays are to be final-drafted "under controlled conditions" in the presenting centre.

The argument is the same as it always has been; and I suspect that rumours of failure to comply may abound. It is likely that teachers will find it difficult to justify the class time taken up with redrafting, since the rule applies to a considerable body of work in the new system and problems will be compounded when a pupil is absent and will have to final draft in class while the rest of the group progresses to other work.

Furthermore, on the eve of the millennium, Higher Still fails to recognise the role of technology in today's society. It is more and more common for candidates to prepare drafts of essays on word processors. Each year Christmas presents increase the number of individuals who have access to this technology at home and parents as well as schools rightly encourage the use of computers.

Many candidates will therefore arrive in school with their preliminary draft(s) word-processed, but will find that they will have to hand-write the final draft "under controlled conditions".

Most English teachers will not be able to provide sufficient computers for word-processed final drafts - but then the concept of word-processing a final draft of a document which is already word-processed takes the breath away. In this way, Higher Still appears to deny the role of modern technology, thus failing to present candidates with a situation which reflects life in the real world, but warming the hearts of Luddite technophobes.

The question of authenticity of the candidate's work remains whether or not controlled conditions are applied. The real control will be the teacher's professional judgment as to authenticity. But in this respect, Higher Still offers the perfect solution anyway: there will be an end-of-course exam. Indeed, Higher Still English courses seem to be going overboard for the exam principle, with significant parts of the coursework now being presented effectively as exams.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of this move, even without it there is a major, formal, externally-assessed exam which must be passed if the full award is to be gained. This means that parents, higher education institutions and employers can have confidence that the Higher Still certificates will be meaningful.

No matter what SQA does, there will always be doubts about internal assessment. If these doubts are sufficient to drive our assessment system into absurd corners, then perhaps the whole concept of internal assessments needs to be reviewed, as so many have argued recently.

For my part, however, I am happy enough to make my judgments on candidates' coursework, in my attempts to ensure authenticity and credibility of assessments, in the knowledge that the final external assessment will act as a control. Not only will the exam provide as objective an assessment as possible, it will also offer formal corroboration of teachers' judgments, and will act as a check on any teacher who might be tempted to accept work which is not the candidate's own.

Surely, the time is right to recognise the place the new technologies have in society today. I would go so far as to argue that, with a formal exam as part of the assessment, it is time to remove the limitations placed on use of spell-checkers.

When our pupils are about to move out in to a world where technology is constantly evolving to assist individuals, new courses should be forward-looking and should be designed to promote confidence with the new resources. I suspect that the current approach to the use of computers in Higher Still English courses will look somewhat embarrassing in the new millennium.

Angus Gray is principal teacher of English at Tain Royal Academy, Ross-shire.

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